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Thursday November 15, 2012

Maureen Mitchell Donald

Teacher, mentor, community leader, incredible aunt. Born Nov. 19, 1917, in Saskatoon, died Sept. 24, 2012, in Vancouver of cancer, aged 94

When my younger brother Kevin and I were kids, our Aunt Maureen would sometimes give our harried parents a break by taking us to the movies.

Her act of kindness was magnified by the fact she couldn't enjoy the dialogue or the music herself: She was deaf.

Maureen lost her hearing when she was 2. She was educated at schools for the deaf in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

In 1945, she became the first deaf teacher of deaf children in British Columbia, at Jericho Hill School for the Deaf in Vancouver. Maureen taught there until retiring in 1978.

When she began teaching, it was believed that deafness precluded a post-secondary education, and that teaching - including teaching the deaf - was an impossible career choice.

"Ms. Donald rejected these prejudices," the University of British Columbia noted in its citation when it awarded her an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2000. It said Maureen had been called the 20th century's most outstanding teacher of the deaf in Canada.

To her family, she was simply "Mimi." That's what I called her when I was a toddler and couldn't pronounce "Maureen." The nickname stuck.

A few years ago, together with Kevin and our younger brother Michael, I was leafing through a book about prominent deaf Canadians, and we found Mimi's entry. It listed her impressive accomplishments: first woman president of the Vancouver Association of the Deaf, one of the few Canadians named to the U.S. National Fraternal Society of the Deaf Hall of Fame, member of the editorial board of the American Sign Language in Canada project.

"Gee, you're quite a big wheel in the deaf community, aren't you?" I said to her.

"So, you finally figured that out?" Mimi signed to us, turning her nose up with a gently mocking sneer.

We loved her teasing sense of humour. My wife, Rie, loves to tell the story about how she and Mimi were in the back seat of the car while I was driving and Kevin was sitting beside me.

Mimi clasped her hands as if in prayer while directing Rie's attention to her two nephews' bald spots, which suggested monastic tonsures to her irreverent sensibility. Rie cracked up.

Mimi could be a bit of a fussbudget. When we ordered a pizza to be delivered to her cozy - and always spotlessly clean - home, she would set the table with placemats, coasters, knives and forks arranged just so.

Mimi always took great care to look good. Even when she was in palliative care at home, her hair and makeup were just right.

She refused to dwell on the past. She'd respond to regrets or apologies by saying "Forget about it, it's done," while making a cutting motion with her hands.

That forward-looking attitude is why Mimi was able to do so much and have such an impact in her long and rich life.

Stephen McClure is Maureen's nephew.

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